The 2018 Royal Rumble was an incredible, emotional night for WWE. It included the first women’s Royal Rumble, which had a plethora of surprises, and more importantly, it put the PPV back on the right track, after years of missteps. Warning: Spoilers for the 2018 Royal Rumble below.
The winner of the 31st men’s Royal Rumble match was none other than Shinsuke Nakamura. Asuka won the first women’s Royal Rumble. Two Japanese “strong style” fan favorites will be fighting for the world titles at WrestleMania 34. But just as important as who win is exactly how they won. Both Rumble matches took pains to celebrate the past, while also emphasizing the importance of the future. And both matches gave fans what they wanted, instead of presuming to tell them what they wanted.
It’s a lesson WWE has learned the hard way over the past several years, starting with the 2014 Royal Rumble. That match was won by part-time wrestler Batista, and it didn’t include fan-favorite Daniel Bryan. The fans hated the result so much that WWE turned Batista heel and included Daniel Bryan in WrestleMania XXX‘s main event.
For the 2015 Royal Rumble, WWE put Daniel Bryan in the main event, but he was eliminated unceremoniously shortly after entering. When Roman Reigns–widely seen as WWE’s new Cena-type champion–won the match, the majority of fans booed and heckled the result. Even The Rock, who came to the ring to raise his cousin’s arm, couldn’t stem the negative reaction.
By 2016, Daniel Bryan was injured and all but retired. And WWE had finally figured out how to best utilize Roman Reigns as a Rumble participant. By teasing a possible Reigns win, WWE could unite the majority of fans against him. And thus, whoever eliminated Reigns or won the Rumble instead of him would get a massive response and be treated like a conquering hero.
“Well, it’s not what I wanted. But at least it’s not Roman!” fans would say.
WWE had a figurative rubber stamp; the die-hard fans would cheer and embrace any decent WWE Superstar who wasn’t Roman Reigns. But rather than take this moment to build a promising up-and-comer, WWE played it safe. Triple H won the Rumble in 2016. Randy Orton won the Rumble in 2017.
It was understandable on a business level: give the honor to the superstar with the highest name recognition, to promote the biggest event of the year. But this went against historical precedence. The Rumble once had a proud history of elevating new main eventers, like it did for Yokozuna in 1993, Shawn Michaels in 1995, Steve Austin in 1997, or Chris Benoit in 2004.
But in 2018, WWE went back to this original narrative premise. The final three participants in the men’s Rumble were John Cena, Roman Reigns, and Shinsuke Nakamura. Both Cena and Reigns are widely perceived as the company’s chosen ‘top guys,’ and it’s no coincidence that Nakamura eliminated both of them to win his first Rumble.
The decision challenges the status quo: What should a top WWE champion look like and act like? Nakamura fights a strike-heavy, fast style. He’s non-American. He’s luridly sexual. His promos are limited by his English fluency. But in less than three months, he’ll be fighting AJ Styles (who is a fairly unconventional superstar himself) for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. WWE is testing the waters of its global, expanded audience.
WWE ran the exact same playbook for the women’s Rumble as well. The final three came down to the Bella Twins and Asuka–a figurative fight between the prior “Divas” era of sports entertainment and the current, modern era of “women’s wrestling.” Asuka’s win is meaningful for all the same reasons as Nakamura’s.
A decade ago, Asuka would have been booked as the “evil foreigner” and the monster heel. Her heavy accent would be a talking point to garner heat. Her moveset would be “unconventional” rather than a model for other wrestlers to aspire to. WWE is diversifying its roster, and part of that is accepting the different in-ring styles those cultures bring.
Ronda Rousey’s post-Rumble appearance, along with the announcement that she is a full-time superstar, only solidifies the division’s legitimacy. Can you imagine the women from ten years ago taking on a former MMA champion? Women’s wrestling has come such a long way.
Several weeks ago, I expressed a fear that WWE would turn the first women’s Royal Rumble into a joke. But last night, in both Rumbles, there were no ill-timed comedy spots. There were no match-altering interferences. And full-time, next-generation superstars were the respective victors of each. The Royal Rumble has paved a pristine road to WrestleMania. Let’s hope they don’t hit any potholes in the next three months.